A FUTURE ARCHAEOLOGY:
DAN HOLDSWORTH'S CONTINUOUS TOPOGRAPHY
“Few of us outside the world of programming can really imagine, in our mind’s eye, the translation of digital data into the pictorial world we are familiar with from a long history of photography”
Judith Williamson (Williamson 2016: 9)
Continuous Topography creates an image of what Holdsworth calls a “future archaeology”, in which our own temporal horizons are thrown into relief. The works invite us to imaginatively inhabit what initially appears to be an almost entirely abstract and immaterial, or virtual space. In fact, these are entirely new kinds of landscape imagery. Continuous Topography examines Alpine glacier formations and rock formations, whose fragility and complexity are able to speak about multiple concerns. The series speaks about our radical change to the planet’s climatic systems and therefore the shifting contours of ice. It speaks about the vast vistas of time over which such geological features were first forged and our own transience. And it speaks about the delicacy of our collective fragile ecological niche – made more poignant by the state of knowledge we now have about where our destructive behaviour may be leading.
Continuous Topography presents us with new types of pictures of the world beneath us – and requires us to imagine new types of world-picture. Holdsworth has observed that it was the pioneering naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt who (re) introduced the ancient Greek term ‘cosmos’ into modern use, in the 1840s, through his multi-volume treatise Kosmos. This was an attempt to view the world anew, in scientific terms, as a single interacting entity – that is, as a process. Continuous Topography similarly begins to allow us to envisage our planet as a process: an event both extended in time and distributed in space, but whose components are inter-related in almost every aspect. Von Humboldt is one of the pioneers of modern physical geography and biogeography, and his investigations can be seen to echo Holdsworth’s in several aspects. Since Von Humboldt’s time, scientific efforts have been oriented towards ensuring that the discipline of science, the totality of ‘nature’, and human activity within it, can be imagined as parts of a unified system within which all elements interact dynamically. This, however, has scarcely altered the way in which we picture landscape. Holdsworth’s recent work rises to the enormity of this challenge, and we might imagine Continuous Topography as a twenty-first century rethinking of the ambitions of Von Humboldt’s epic, five-volume treatise about science and planetary development, Kosmos.
Holdsworth’s work might also remind us of the subtitle of Kosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. Continuous Topography does indeed offer us kinds of ‘sketches’ – but only in the sense that they are artistic interpretations created from scientific observations. Few projects, either artistic or scientific, could conjure more wonder from greater precision than Holdsworth’s recent works. That is in part because it is the most recent outcome of a three-year research project into how we can visualise what we know to exist but are unable to fully grasp imaginatively, because we have no representation for it.
Continuous Topography has been created in collaboration with research geologist Mark Allan: together, they have also surveyed glaciers around Mont Blanc including the Argentiere, Mer de Glace, Pre de Bar, Bionnassay, Bossons, and Miage. The ‘observations’ here are not merely ‘scientific’ in nature: they are made by and with climate scientists under the artist’s auspices.
Continuous Topography is, then, an audacious experiment: an artistic, scientific, and technological experiment alike. It is one whose results have been achieved only with the latest photogrammetry and geomapping technologies as well through interdisciplinary working. In other parallel works, Holdsworth has gathered information about sites necessarily using drones and helicopters, surveying vistas from a non-human perspective. For Continuous Topography an in-depth survey was undertaken at ground level. The extraordinary three-dimensional models we encounter are photographic in origin: they relate closely to Holdsworth’s body of research to date whilst marking a distinct departure. Each image is created through a lengthy process of correlating several hundred photographs of a landscape with GPS recordings to begin to build an intensely detailed virtual model of its morphology. We can follow every inch of its contours in a way that could never have been possible until twenty-first century modelling and photographic technologies. Continuous Topography, however, should also best be seen as a philosophical project: one concerned with the nature of imaging technology, of photography, of the ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, and of the limits of our knowledge of the world. As the reference to Von Humboldt implies, Holdsworth is intrigued by what those limits were though to be, so very recently, and what they may yet be in the near future. As Jean-Francois Lyotard made clear thirty years ago, today, the “artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher” in “presenting the unpresentable” (Lyotard 1984: 81). This short formulation accurately describes Holdsworth’s position and the basis of his project.
Through Continuous Topography, we are able, for the first time in history, to plot every crack and contour of glacial formations, and in part of the series, rock formations originating some 150 million years ago. Every detail of their surfaces are available for our inspection and scrutiny. The sites are presented as ‘sculptural’ objects in ways both Robert Smithson, and a pre-Raphaelite painter like John Everett Millais or his mentor John Ruskin would each have understood. We might even say that Continuous Topography partakes of the ethos of each artist, or is an improbable missing link between the two.
What we see ‘at first glance’ are fragments or what Holdsworth aptly calls “extractions” from the Alpine terrain. He sees each work as “an infrastructure of complex geometries and points: a codified representation of geological time at the interface of the virtual”. This testimony condenses three complex aims that require unpacking, and touches upon the three interrelated intellectual aims of the work. As the media theorist McKenzie Wark also puts it, the challenge for philosophers and for artists is to imagine a new “media theory for the Anthropocene” able to “connect the fast calculations of digital time to the deepest of temporalities, that of the earth itself” and able to throw light on our futures by doing so (Wark 2015 n.p.) This ambition might be the simplest characterisation of Holdsworth’s triple ambitions in Continuous Topography. Holdsworth gives us access to a new realm of knowledge, through a new virtual realm, and invites us to imaginatively inhabit the imagined arena of “geological time” that lies beyond the human.
A Future Archaeology
The means by which the virtual realm is constructed requires some exposition. Each image is built from several million individual points: each is a spatial co-ordinate, but also has the tonal value it held within the original photograph ‘ported’ into a virtual realm. In other words, what we encounter are indexical images of a quite unique, and peculiarly mediated kind. Holdsworth describes the process of collating the “raw data” into an initial image as one where the individual co-ordinates come to “collectively compose a point cloud”. The image of a “cloud” of data is both wholly apt and singularly, deliberately, inappropriate, of course. The lightness and evanescence of the image, and the sheer improbability of its forms suggest vaporous, cloud-like structures. The massing of millions of molecular elements into a single formation echoes the process by which ‘real’ clouds are formed from agglomerations of moisture droplets. On the other hand, the ‘mass’ of data in play is beyond our immediate comprehension. And the literal weight of the limestone rocks photographed is upwards of tens of millions of tonnes: few things could be less cloud-like. Moreover, the pressures that formed them, in deep time, are beyond what human agent could readily imagine, let alone ever exert. It might be thought encountering Continuous Topography that looking at the human realm from the landscape’s ‘own’ perspective as an entity persisting for millions of years, it is we are cloud-like in our fragility and fleeting, cyclical existence. The media historian Jussi Parikka has observed, as Holdsworth has, the habits of mind that separate technology into a ‘cloudsphere’ from earthly manufacture. His analysis is quoted at length as it echoes Holdsworth’s so precisely:
We usually see media as an immaterial sphere of communication…We sometimes understand information as a sphere of its own. This habit continues today, with digital culture pitched as an immaterial sphere of information…independent of material substrate. But digital culture is completely dependent on Earth’s long duration. Despite the fallacy that media is increasingly immaterial, wireless, and smoothly clouded by data services, we are more dependent than ever on the geological earth. Geology does not appear in normal conversations about media and culture, but realizing the geological importance of the Earth [is crucial] for media culture… there would be no media without geology (Parikka 2013 n.p.)
Holdsworth’s unique form of “future archaeology” provides us with a knowledge of the world we could never attain through any other means, though what this ‘knowledge’ is requires some unpacking. In the artist’s words, Continuous Topography is as “precise [a] virtual reconstruction of the topography of the rock formations” as is technologically possible. Conventional archaeologists could recreate the forms of parts of these landscapes in what we might call ‘exacting’ detail from these images: should they need to in the event of future geological change. However, we might say that most future forms of archaeology are likely to be technological ones: that is, forms of media archaeology.
Whichever forecast about the future of fossil fuels is preferred, it will not be long until ‘peak oil’ will have been passed. After that point, orthodox forms of mineral excavation will have been exhausted or even rendered impossible because of their energy requirements. What will remain available for exploration then, are the deep strata of information-as-data we have accumulated in the digital age. Future archaeologists’ operations, in reconstructing the petro-civilisation of the early twenty-first century, will be more likely to be involved in excavating the reserves of data we have accumulated – in what now is labelled data mining.
Time out of mind: photography’s other times
Holdsworth’s extraordinary spatial research is a multifaceted project. It might be said that it should be read in terms of its temporalities in the plural, rather than as a purely spatial investigation. Continuous Topography invites us to imagine both the prehistoric deep past, and the technologies of our own era. We are asked to envisage the world from what might be best described as post-historical viewpoint. Holdsworth presents us with a forensically detailed slice of the earth’s uppermost layer. This thin sliver of materials is a seductive metaphor space for the uppermost layer of geological time that we inhabit as a species, in relation to the longue durée of the planet’s lifespan.
It goes without saying that Holdsworth’s work scarcely resembles other works of contemporary art in either its conception or its method of realisation. We need to look elsewhere for appropriate points of comparison or orientation. One of the few ‘archaeological’ forms of artistic endeavour that Continuous Topography might be thought to resemble is that of the English Surrealist Paul Nash. In the 1930s and 1940s, Nash created a series of photographs whose strangeness has not diminished. Photography, of course, is an art of light and of time: both Nash’s and Holdsworth’s methods alter what can be thought possible within the medium.
Photography is a practice of ‘drawing-with-light’ precisely as its name attests. As is well known, the new word ‘photo-graphy’ was coined in the 1830s, from the Greek words photos, namely light, and graphé – drawing or ‘representation by means of lines’. Continuous Topography, unusually, draws with ‘points’, rather than lines: it alters the parameters by which the medium can be understood. What remains constant is that whatever light the camera draws into its lens is thereafter arrested from the flow of time, and held static forever.
Or so it would seem. But Nash’s quixotic philosophy of the photographic image is able to throw light upon Holdsworth’s equally unusual aims, and thoroughly twenty-first century methods. For Nash and for Holdsworth, the true power of the photographic image is not merely to present an adjacent slice of time to us in the present - from, say, a year, decade or a generation earlier. The unique agency of photography lies in defying the unidirectional flight of time’s arrow. It is the ability of photography “to blast open the continuum of history” as Walter Benjamin at exactly the same time, that is at stake in Continuous Topography – despite initial impressions of its digital aesthetic (Benjamin 1940: 396). For both artists, the medium can exert a unique form of power by summoning to mind that which we cannot ordinarily imagine, rather than that which was present but is no longer. For both Nash and Holdsworth, this means evoking time’s far extremities: namely the pre-human and post-human worlds, before our species began, and after it.
Continuous Topography, as with Nash’s tonally flat yet apocalyptic images, such as Laocoon of 1941 and Monster Field of 1938 were intended to throw our imagination in two opposite ontrary directions at once, temporally. Both artists imagined a future archaeology. We might see both sa offering premonitions of a distant future, and echoes from a deep past, rather than providing documents from our present. Nash’s vision was more overtly symbolic and sharply dramatized than Holdsworth’s. As the critic Simon Grant has written, Nash’s symbolic, abstracted landscapes were a “collectivised depiction of grief” that were “about the end of mankind” (Grant 2003 n.p.) Holdsworth’s work does not have any of these overt connotations, and only carries them lightly as an undertow. Nevertheless, it would be possible to describe Continuous Topography as a kind of improbable and abstracted memento mori: one for our own place in the world as it stands.
The new precariat
In recent years two new terms have emerged of relevance to discussing Holdsworth’s recent work. The first, referred to above, is the ‘Anthropocene’: the concept that humanity has initiated an entirely new planetary geological era. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz’s recent discussions of this term are salutary, in imagining how Holdsworth’s images as artefacts, will gain further potency and utility as we move further into this era (Bonneiul and Fressoz 2016). They argue that we have as yet not experienced the full “shock” of entering the “Anthropocene”. Holdsworth’s ambition to imagine “geological time” has its clear and pressing imperative here: the Anthropocene will not last forever, and its consequences are unknowable. How can we conceive of, or represent what such an uncertain future will look like? New forms of representation are clearly required: Holdsworth offers one solution. A second term becomes of relevance when transposed from its sociological uses to an ecological context: “the precariat” (Standing 2014). This term describes a state of mass, radical uncertainty. We, at a species level, are the ecological ‘precariat’. Continuous Topography proposes that only collaborations between scientists and artists possessed of a speculative imagination and visual resources might begin to help us envisage the implications of such a shift.
Holdsworth’s title Continuous Topography is intentionally blankly descriptive, whilst anchoring the work in the history of conceptual art and its relation to landscape photography. Specifically, it echoes the title of the seminal 1975 exhibition that brought figures such as Lewis Baltz and Bernd and Hilla Becher to public attention. That exhibition was New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, at the International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York. It is central to the canon of contemporary photography. The show, however, is ordinarily known only by the first half of its title. Holdsworth’s choice alerts us to its ‘long tail’ both in titular terms and in its ongoing art-historical legacy. He does so by seemingly presenting a landscape that has not suffered ‘alteration’, and presenting it as a pristine digital artefact that does not bear the photographer’s ‘hand’.
As Holdsworth observes, for nearly a decade up to 1975 Baltz had been viewed as a conceptual artist who employed photography like John Baldessari rather than as a ‘photographer’. Holdsworth sees his own ambitions in parallel terms to those given voice by Baltz. His aim is, similarly, to expand upon the legacies of conceptual art, by retaining the privilege it gave to philosophical investigation over visual spectacle. The conversion of landscape into ‘data’ is a similar technique of distanciation and objectification to those employed in conceptualism. Such an approach echoes the terms established by art historian John Roberts, who has argued that “photography in conceptualism focuses on problems that remain central to contemporary art: how is it possible to produce images without rejecting that scepticism about the primacy of the visual that analytic conceptualism so effectively pursued?” (Roberts 1997: 1) Accordingly, Holdsworth’s recent work denies us many of the usual gratifications of photography including its illusionary power, and the call upon memory that its time-stamp exerts - even whilst the images themselves are, ultimately, indexical signs like ‘ordinary’ photographs.
Holdsworth’s relatively Spartan, pared-back aesthetic, particularly in the moving image work in Continuous Topography should be seen in this light. With the exception of Stephen Shore, the artists in New Topographics eschewed any immediate visual gratification, shooting on black and white film. Their shared concerns have been repeatedly summarised under such labels as the ‘aesthetic of the banal’. Holdsworth’s aesthetic in Continuous Topography draws upon the tradition they along with other conceptual artists instigated - precisely in order to reanimate it in the light of new understandings of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ developed since that historical juncture. In Holdsworth’s work as in theirs, the more ‘banal’ the aesthetic, the greater the intellectual stakes that are being played for.
The artist’s location in the Alps would at first glance seem to overturn the concerns of the Topographics artists and their investigation of the quotidian, urban, unspectacular, and downright ordinary. They had found significance in ‘everyday’ urban landscapes. This was a reaction to their own photographic and artistic predecessors’ idealisation of landscape into heroic visual tropes. In particular, figures such as Baltz rebelled against the sense of grace bestowed upon ‘the natural’ or ‘the elemental’ by the overt aestheticisation of sites. If Ansel Adams’ work was quest for moral and aesthetic elevation, they offered both an affection for, and a detached analysis of (or even estrangement from) their subject matter. Crucially, the language used to describe places shifted from the terminology of landscape to that of sites. For Holdsworth, both types of language to understand place are needed. His employment of ‘data’ reignites the radical potential of conceptual art to imbue blank, mute, style-less images with affective and philosophical potency. But the sites here are indeed ‘landscapes’. We might say that where Bernd and Hilla Becher’s documented industrial structures that were at that juncture either archaic or about to be rendered historic, Holdsworth attempts the same for the purportedly ‘natural’ landscape. What we encounter are the ecological equivalents to the Bechers’ industrial sites: they plotted the end of one era, Holdsworth the beginning of another.
As outlined, in contrast to the Topographics artists he so admires, Holdsworth has returned to a place that is – at least seemingly – untouched by human hand and emblematic of ‘nature’, or a non-human site ‘in the wild’. This is a strategic decision. Holdsworth observes that the last twenty years have seen a revolution in ideas about binaries of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. The anthropologist of science Bruno Latour is fundamental to his thinking about this issue: Latour has long argued that this binary is false and unsustainable. Whilst the ‘subject matter’ of Continuous Topography may be misread as an iconic site that is itself ‘nature’, Holdsworth recognises with Latour that “the prospect of keeping nature and culture in their separate mental chambers becomes overwhelming… we should rethink our distinctions [to] rethink the definition and constitution of modernity itself” (Latour 1993: n.p). Holdsworth’s form of representation makes apparent that there is, now, no place outside of human observation and none outside of our collective influence.
‘Oblique approaches’: landscapes as objects
As Andrew Cole has observed, quoting the central figure of ‘object-oriented ontology’ Graham Harman, “We can [only] think the unthinkable if we adopt … ‘oblique approaches’ to the object world [which] we cannot directly experience.” (Cole 2015 n.p.) Holdsworth’s new works do indeed take ‘oblique approaches’ - both to abstract, virtual and mediatised worlds; and to the monumental and concrete worlds of places whose age, scale and global significance are beyond our ready comprehension.
Such an approach recalls the introduction to Bruno Latour’s 1992 volume We Have Never Been Modern, which opens with a description of the author’s perplexity at the competing narratives surrounding climate change. Not only do different disciplines have conflicting premises, but even those that do are not compatible: “The horizons, the stakes, the time frames, the actors - none of these is commensurable (Latour 1993b: 1). As seen above, the problem in forging a new topographical imagination is not necessarily a spatial one per se. The principal problem is of adequately representing multiple temporal horizons that reflect the different ‘objects’ occupying a space. One central aim of Holdsworth’s project is therefore to reimagine a pictorial language that can allow us to think in multiple temporalities, by thinking of the world-as-object, humans-as-objects, and data as an object. This allows Holdsworth to create works that are aesthetic objects in an orthodox sense – an object that offers a special form of knowledge of its own – and which are historical documents in the fullest sense of that term.
On one level the type of obliqueness that Holdsworth pursues can be described simply. His approach is to address the landscape and each element in and on it as a discrete object and to do so quantitatively rather than qualitatively. This is in keeping with the ethos of conceptualism, and that of pre-Raphaelitism, as above. Working at a microscopic, ‘molecular’ level of detail is precisely what enables Holdsworth to engage with macrocosmic ideas. ‘Point mapping’ software, ordinarily employed only by the military, other state organisations and some larger corporations allows Holdsworth to ensure that we cannot see the landscape here other than as representation. We are required to accept Latour’s demand that “culture” and “nature” are not kept as separate concepts but admitted as inseparable.
We might observe here that the title Continuous Topography is playful as well as ‘blank’. It describes the ‘continuity’ between each of the millions of centimetre-accurate measurements sincerely enough. But in viewing the work, as I have suggested, we become proxies or witnesses to an epochal shift or change – and to that which goes well beyond the boundaries of conventional historical narration. The word ‘witness’ is here employed in its fullest sense: we are made complicit, or are made aware of our complicity, in the processes of discontinuity being discussed, and that those discontinuities are of an unimaginable order and scale.
Holdsworth’s new work presents us with what we might call a strange combination of “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns”, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous terms. All of us are aware, tangentially, of the fragility of our place upon the planet, as one species amongst roughly six billion species of flora and fauna. This much is a ‘known known’. Imagining our own place, or lack of one, amongst a dramatically changed global ecosystem is, an ‘unknown unknown’. What it might look like is by definition unknowable. Imagining such a discontinuity as visual knowledge requires of an artist something stranger and more unpredictable: an emphatic insistence upon the relationship between their materials and what is represented. Or to simplify these terms, a fundamental relationship between ‘form’ and ‘content’. This requires some close exploration.
The idea that fine art is an independent form of knowledge as ‘aesthetics’ has a geneaology that can be traced back to Kant. Here, though, the inflexion relevant to Holdsworth’s work is that given by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project. Benjamin described the strongest art objects as being possessed of a particular form of “palpable knowledge” (“gefühltes Wisseri”). It is a form of knowledge that is peculiar to them (Benjamin 1938, in Tiedemann 2005: 237). It is knowledge not ‘communicated’ through representation, but experienced as ‘embodied’.
Continuous Topography attempts to create such an ‘embodied’ form of “palpable knowledge”. Holdworth’s intellectual trajectory in this work is closely aligned with other artists’ preoccupation with what have become known as “speculative realism” and “object-oriented ontology”. The influence of such figures as Latour (since 1993), Graham Harman (2002), Levi Byrant (2010, 2011) and Manuel DeLanda (2004) on Holdsworth’s thinking is evident both in Continuous Topography and other recent bodies of work including Spatial Objects. Put simply, Holdsworth has expanded his investigation of what constitutes a photographic ‘object’, and a photographic ‘subject’ to their limit points. The ‘objects’ that constitute his photographic subject matter now range from a single pixel to an entire geological formation. Both are treated equally: their scale does not differentiate them hierarchically. In Spatial Objects, the objects referred to in the title are pixels enlarged to an anthropomorphic scale and possessed of a monumental physicality, as well as a strange ungraspable quality. In Continuous Topography, what the ‘object’ under scrutiny is perhaps more elusive: there are several possible answers from the microscopic to the macrocosmic, as I have suggested.
Holdsworth’s concerns with materials and scale in photography echo Levi Bryant’s two claims that artists’ and scientists’ investigations have, thus far, have been confined to a relatively slender range of ‘objects’, as seen from a largely anthropocentric worldview. As Bryant has noted, object-oriented ontology has by contrast attempted to imagine objects as having an independent existence separable from our own view of them: “excessive focus on how humans relate to the world [has been both] to the detriment of anything else [and] profoundly asymmetrical ... the object [under investigation should not be a] mere prop or vehicle for human cognition, language, and intentions without contributing anything of its own (Bryant 2010 n.p.).
Holdsworth’s new work adopts this perspective, and is grounded in what Manuel DeLanda has codified as a “flat ontology”: a theory of existence in which at least in theory, all objects are equally valid subjects for artistic and scientific speculative investigation (DeLanda 2004: 58). Spatial Objects presents us with is in effect a pixel’s worldview or more accurately its agency. Continuous Topography presents us with what is recognisably a landscape – but one that seems as though it is from its own viewpoint rather than ours. There is no indexical registration of any human presence in the series, and nor is there necessarily any human eye ‘behind’ the camera asserting their artistic subjectivity in an orthodox way. Instead, we slowly become aware that the image itself is only made possible because of our capacity to undertake a level of precision surveillance at a geological level. And that is only possible because of military technologies that are entirely ‘object-oriented’ in another sense entirely.
Holdsworth is intrigued by the imaginative possibilities that the different strands of object-oriented ontology offer visual artists. Moreover, defining ‘objects’ in the way Graham Harman does – loosely, to designate all material things, events and actions, genuinely requires us to adopt an entirely different way of thinking. It is one that allows us to imagine a non-human world – and therefore a pre-human and post-human one, as suggested above. The landscape-objects in Continuous Topography call to mind Timothy Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects”: ‘objects’ so widely distributed through space or time as to defy our ordinary sensory range, or even our imaginative capacity to define them. (Morton 2013). The full title of Morton’s recent volume is, precisely in keeping with Holdsworth’s train of thought, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Whilst the Alps are not quite ‘distributed’ spatially, their temporal ‘distribution’ – across hundreds of millions of year, before and after us as a species rather than as individuals – is central to all of the readings the works open onto.
Bruno Latour has called this kind of thought “interobjectivity” where alternative sets of relations between sites, things, people and timescales become thinkable (Latour 1996 n.p.) We should see the landscapes in Continuous Topography as products of this way of thinking, as well as pictorial representations for it. The landscape forms are, as I have recounted, presented as discrete ‘sculptural’ objects – as “fragments” in Holdsworth’s words. They are isolated and objectified against a blank or graduated ground. At the least, we cannot help but become aware that the usual tropes of viewing landscape images whereby we are invited to project affective states onto a site, such as pathetic fallacy, are not in operation here.
A geology of media: other archaeologies
Instead, Holdsworth’s relationship between ‘form’ and ‘content’ come from the fact that he takes archaeology and geology not just as disciplines, but just as others have done, as guiding metaphors by which his practice is pursued. In this, Continuous Topography resembles the intellectual insights offered by media historians such as McKenzie Wark and Jussi Parikka, as well as Siegfield Zielinski, who have all employed such figures to reimagine histories of visual media. One of Parikka’s most celebrated volumes is simply titled A Geology of Media: he writes that we can only understand either media or geology by yoking our insights into both. To do this, we need to see the entire planet as a unified object. Again, Parikka’s recent writings closely resemble Holdsworth’s own patterns of thought:
The dynamics of the Earth are increasingly the focus of our technological culture: from technologies of measurement concerning climates and geological resources, to maximizing the communication capacities…the Earth is now an object dealt with on its own scale, a thing to be put to use as a whole… Future archaeologists will have a lot of material to dig through. Thinking about the Earth as an object requires some imagination… It is an object of interfaces… (Parikka 2013 n.p.) [my italics]
Parikka’s observations return us to Wark’s demand, above: to create a “media theory for the Anthropocene [that] connect[s] the fast calculations of digital time to the deepest of temporalities, that of the earth itself”. (Wark 2015 n.p.) Thus, as Parikka has made, Holdsworth’s language of “interfaces” is an attempt to make direct connections at the level of form and content between “deep time” and that unique to the twenty-first century: between the earth’s oldest materials and our newest technologies. Parikka’s phrase “deep time” and Holdsworth’s drive to picture a deep “geological time” are the same concern. Both spatialise time - and in doing so temporalise space. In other words, the spatial envelope we encounter in Continuous Topography must be read as a slice of time, not just as a spatial experiment, as outlined. The phrase “deep time” was coined in Victorian times to designate geological strata beyond our sight or imaginative framework. It is employed by Holdsworth in similar ways, although he echoes Parikka and Zielinski’s calls to think ‘archaeologically’ or ‘geologically’ about precisely those things we imagine as most ‘modern’.
Encountering a single sliver of a geological stratum in hyper-real and entrancing if alarming levels of detail, invites us to similarly think ‘archaeologically’ or ‘geologically’ about the medium with which our encounter is staged. Holdsworth treats the medium of photography ‘archaeologically’. Holdsworth’s subject matter in his last two bodies of work might be described not so much as ‘landscape’ as a “geophysics of media”, that plots the development of “medianatures” in Parikka’s terms (Parikka quoted in Kafka 2015 n.p.). Moreover, Holdsworth parallels Parikka in extending Latour’s ideas that other species and materials themselves should be seen as “agents of history”: in viewing the distinctly mineral landscape of the Alps, we become aware of the material technologies needed to represent and experience it as a mediatised artefact. Holdsworth attempts to imagine, with Parikka that
Media history is millions, even billions, of years old… to adequately understand contemporary media culture we must set out from material realities that precede media themselves - Earth’s history, geological formations, minerals, and energy.” (Parikka 2015: 1)
New perspectives: ‘as above, so below’
By presenting images as data – as Holdsworth describes “as though they were incoming NASA data”, we are able to suspend judgement momentarily about capital, and other matters. It is possible to read the works initially as kinds of graphs and as conspicuous abstractions. This imaginative trajectory has several layers of significance. For one thing, it becomes unclear if we are looking at a landscape rendered in the dominant single-point perspective that cameras and post-Renaissance paintings demand of us. This is no mere technical issue: it transforms our reading of the imagined space and alters the register in which we read the image. It forecloses the possibility of reading the space in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century terms. Seeing the Alps in terms of the Burkean sublime is no longer so simple. Although we are directed towards a digital or mediatised sublime – one in which we attend to ‘the surface of things’ familiar from theories of postmodernism – Holdsworth’s works complicate such readings beyond that. I will suggest that the perspective construction of these sites is crucial in how we might read them. Traditional single-point perspective, since the Renaissance, implies an imaginative control of the space depicted. The ‘point clouds’ offer something close to a textbook illustration of ‘chaos theory’: they offer an image of a world in flux.
In the film of Continuous Topography, we scan the landscape from above. As the art historian John Barrell comprehensively proved in his 1972 The Idea of Landscape the ‘point of view’ taken by an imagined observer in landscape painting always implies a corresponding ‘world view’. To have the power to scan and survey a landscape is to either imaginatively own it or to materially do so, or both. In Barrell’s famous formulation, we ‘command’ views seen from a ‘prospect’. Mastery over the world is always encoded into pictorial conventions, and picturing landscape is of special importance because it reveals more about us than we admit. As Barrell wrote, landscape art demands that “we must have the space between the landscape and himself [the viewer] which [only] a high viewpoint affords.” (Barrell 1972: 23) These conventions are normative in traditional European landscape painting, and as Barrell observed, poetry.
One of Holdsworth’s many achievements in Continuous Topography is to render strange the founding conventions of picturing landscape art – that is, to make them opaque to us. The ‘prospect’ ordinarily provides a sense of completion and resolution, as well as psychological ownership of a site: none of the above apply here. Continuous Topography withholds any imaginative completion of the site. The space is neither replete nor commodifiable: it stubbornly remains an ‘object’ to be confronted on its own terms as such.
We might even say that Holdsworth forestalls our ability to foretell or predict the relations between objects. As Stephanie Kuduk Weine has recently observed, “what John Barrell calls ‘the idea of landscape’ [is] a capacity to register the relations among “all kinds of things”, natural and made, now and under the action of time” (Kuduk Weine 2014: 173). Continuous Topography puts the very “idea of landscape” under threat – from the inside, as it were. A second of Holdsworth’s achievements is to offer us a new kind of poetry of the landscape that bears little resemblance to those forms that came before, and creates its own rules and conventions. Holdsworth’s work should be seen in the light of the observations made by Barrell and his acolytes that landscape poetry was, in essence, the imposition of order onto natural form. As his contemporary Joanna Rapf acknowledged, landscape “poetry… was based on a procedure which involved the poet placing himself at a distance from the scene, on a hilltop for instance, from which he would try to shape and control the view below according to pre-established rules of landscape art …to “enclose” the landscape” (Rapf 1974: 79). Sure enough, in Continuous Topography, we encounter a thoroughly “enclosed” landscape, but one which we can achieve neither a comfortable distance from nor a simple familiarity with.
Liquid modernity - liquid romanticism
This is to say that the forms created in the still images in the series occupy a strange, flattened-out pictorial space, evacuated of context and voided of any pre-existent order that would ‘ground’ them - either philosophically or pictorially. The relation of the term ‘ground’ between art and thought is no accident, I suggest. The grounds deserve special attention for what imaginative pathways they offer and for what readings they foreclose. On the one hand, the gently graduated, computer-generated backgrounds in the still images are akin both to the most banal and over-familiar images of our era: computer screensavers. On the other, they are akin to the epic, romantic skies found in Casper David Friedrich’s best-known works, and those in other canonical nineteenth-century romantic paintings. Extended below the horizon line, they efface perspective and deny us a solid understanding of the space we are examining: they seem to render the forms liquid or even gaseous. Materially, the forms created by the point clouds seem to resemble jets or spikes of molten glass that have taken on momentary rest. Glass, appropriately enough, is a material that feels solid, but is technically in a state of permanently liquid.
The sense that we are seeing forms made from glass emphasises and makes manifest Zygmunt Bauman’s image of technological modernity. For Bauman, modernity is fundamentally characterised by its ‘liquidity’ – that is to say, its radical contingency and ungraspability. (Bauman 2000). Holdsworth’s ‘liquidity’ is not merely created by forms of near-fractal complexity. Pictorially, our sense of a radical ‘liquidity’ also comes from the lack of any anchor in perspectival construction to frame the object. What is of particular interest is that the idea of mapping the surface of an object that is ‘liquid’ is not new, but arguably a Romantic coinage. One of Wordworth’s poetic images from 1815 could easily be taken for a description of Continuous Topography: “The whole surface of the out-spread map / Became invisible: for all around / Had darkness fallen …Upon the blinded mountain’s silent top” (Wordsworth 1815: 285-6)
Neither / nor; both / and
The ‘mapping’ Holdsworth undertakes from on high, achieves the opposite to this of course: it makes tangible the ‘spread’ of contours in space even whilst making the landscape ‘itself’ invisible. It does go by transforming the landscape into a discrete object. Lending a landscape an ‘objecthood’ in which it is neither ‘figure’ nor ‘ground’ is a genuinely novel pictorial stratagem. Continuous Topography invite us to see landscape in terms of ‘both / and’. Moreover, the still images in the series invite us to move between “seeing in” and “seeing as”, in the terms of philosophers Richard Wollheim and Arthur Danto (Wollheim 1980; Danto 1992). We are invited to see the image as illusionary, if elusive object, and as a pictorial surface that is a radiant object in and for itself.
The lack of a clear single-point perspective with fore-, middle- and background is central to what readings are open to us. As the art historian and theorist Rosalind Krauss has argued, perspective is fundamental to readings of landscape photography. It creates a sense of narrative and narrative progression: of:
…perspectival space carried with it the meaning of narrative: a succession of events leading up to and away from this moment; and within that temporal succession - given as a spatial analogue - was secreted the "meaning" of both that space and those events (Krauss 2010: 123).
If perspective implies narrative, and a temporal order that underpins it, then its lack also complicates the temporal horizons that we inhabit within the artwork. Without single-point perspective, we lack a sense that the represented landscape obeys what Krauss calls an “underlying principle of cohesion or order” (Krauss 2010: 214) Without these imaginary anchors, we are left to the assumption that only computers could begin to fathom the forms in front of us: that the human hand (or eye) could never represent them, whatever the aspirations of pre-Raphaelite predecessors.
Each of the still works in Continuous Topography is read as a ‘graphic’ image – first in the sense of appearing as a designed image, even if not one subject to the rules of orthodox pictorial composition. We might draw to mind graphic art such as album sleeves by Peter Saville’s Unknown Pleasures for Joy Division (1979) or Kraftwerk’s Electric Café (1986). At the least, such forms might seem born of an obsession with futurity or technological fetishism. Instead, we might say that Continuous Topography seemingly both confirms and contradicts Gayatri Spivak’s recent pronouncement that “Globalization takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control.” (Spivak 2012: 1)
History painting for the Anthropocene
It might initially appear that Holdsworth seems to visualise and make literal Spivak’s idea that only the transfer of digital data is global. He does so precisely because it is the second part of her idea that is at stake. Namely, it is indeed only data and capital-as-data that are truly ‘global’, in the sense of being transferrable across all space without friction; but the effects of capitalistic mining of mineral resources are borne by all species, as the concept of the Anthropocene makes explicit. The cause of the Anthopocene is that nexus of processes now known as ‘globalization’. Holdsworth’s image is about the ‘historical present’ precisely because that is what is immediately absent. The philosopher Peter Osborne, who has written that the terms ‘globalization’ and ‘historical present’ are effectively synonymous now:
the notion of ‘globalization’ has come to articulate debates about the meaning of the historical present… [but] the term ‘globalization’ thus occupies a conceptual space for which there is no available social occupant, in so far as the subject position that unifies the process of globalization (that of a globally mobile capital) is not that of a possible socially actual agent. (Osborne 2014: 22)
In other words, we cannot represent ‘globalization’, or the ‘historical present’, as Osborne puts it, through any traditional pictorial means, or by referring to human subjects. Paradoxically, Holdsworth’s encapsulation of the ‘historical present’ requires him to imagine the deep past and distant future.
One reading of Continuous Topography is therefore as a continuation of what the art historian TJ Clark called “the painting of modern life” – the project to create a renewed form of history painting that is fit for modernity – or here, for post-humanity (Clark 1982). In this reading, Holdsworth’s project echoes Jean-Francois Lyotard’s famous description of a new kind of sublimity in visual art and is the result of the epochal shift since the 1960s and 1970s that brought about globalization and the conditions of our ‘historical present’. Lyotard remarked in his Report on Knowledge: as digital technologies colonise all aspects of life, and the principal theatre of global struggle becoming a fight for knowledge, the role of today’s art has changed. It is to realise “the presentation of the unpresentable in presentation itself”. (Lyotard 1984: 81) Artists should know that
it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented…[true art is] that which denies itself the solace of good forms… that which searches for new presentations not to enjoy them but to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable (ibid.)
In Holdsworth’s imaginative world, digital technologies have indeed supplanted all else, and remain the one means to ‘present the unpresentable’. Which returns us to the question of what is unpresentable, but imaginable. Silverman argues about Lyotard’s thesis that “The unpresentable is what Lyotard, following Heidegger, calls… the event that is happening now.” [Silvermann 2002 n.p: my italics] The single ‘event’ of epochal importance of our time is our entrance into the Anthopocene. Holdsworth’s works are ‘documents’ in the sense conceptual artists used the term, but also ‘stand in’ for the image of an entire global regime and its event horizon.
Hauntology as ‘dyschronia’ and ‘network effect’
But more importantly, it is a report that presents us with a double dilemma, or a doubled philosophical conundrum. It goes without saying that Continuous Topography‘s ghost-like, ethereal, seemingly translucent forms conjure landscapes of fragility, transience, or which are barely tangible, or which are in flux like molten glass. The photographic works in Continuous Topography present us with forms that are akin to ghosts from the future. They read as mysterious, luminous phantoms, hallucinations, or apparitions, rather than images of solid rocks themselves.
A final reading of the forms’ evanescence, and pictorial translucency, would be that they act as a form of “hauntology” (Derrida 1994) where we encounter the ghosts of the concrete world we stand to lose possession of, or participation in. As both our sense of history and of knowledge are ruptured by the imminent threat that environmental change may entail, pictorially, the “presence” of indexical images has been supplanted by "the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive” (Davis 2005: 373). As Sean O’Hagan has recently written, it takes an exceptional body of work to make us “realise once more how ghostly a medium photography can be” (O’Hagan 2016: 19) Holdsworth’s work does not make individuals as figures into spectral presences, but transforms planets into a kind of Platonic spirit-form. It is as though we have encountered a Dickensian ghost of ‘Earth future’, sent back to us from a forthcoming century. Holdsworth leaves it open as to whether we read such a missive from our future selves as a prophetic warning, or as merely a continuous stream of data that forms a report on the planet’s status. However, that it is not a figure but a pictorial ground that is ghost-like implies that the entire metaphorical grounding of our lives - our present intellectual and material assumptions – are less concrete than we might hope for. Or that the grounds of life itself, as we might conceive it, are not permanent and stable. From this we might take one further implication: our attitude to the temporality of the rocks themselves may be misplaced. They may survive us; but they may not be the same entities or objects forever, however Romantic our trust in their permanence.
Three of the leading cultural critics and theorists associated with hauntology have all offered diagnoses of what a pictorial embodiment of hauntology might consist of. For Frederic Jameson suggests that “the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it is thought to be… we would do well not to count on its density and solidity” (Jameson 1999: 39). This much in itself might describe Continuous Topography at its simplest, pictorial level. With more complexity, Mark Fisher has seen hauntology as a symptom of the implied world-historical and ontological rupture brought about by the Anthropocene: “Hauntology is a coming to terms with the permanence of our [ecological] (dis)possession, the inevitability of dyschronia.” (Fisher 2006 n.p.). As I have suggested, Holdsworth, like Paul Nash, offers us a form of “dyschromia” – of stepping outside of our own temporal horizons. Unlike with Nash’s work, it is the very blankness and apparent affectlessness rather than its narrative drama that is the source of its very power and resonance.
Thirdly, as James Bridle conceives it
Hauntology is also a network effect engendered by the increasing apparent flattening of history and time…The internet only appears to be flat, as we perceive it in two dimensions. In fact, the knowledge it embodies, because it is tied to and instantiated in time, is ever receding from us (2011: n.p.)
Continuous Topography could readily be described as a Bridleian hauntology: a space apparently flattened, but in reality one in which the form of knowledge particular to our own time is dramatized and finds its pictorial equivalent, even whilst the ‘event’ of our time is distantly inferred whilst providing its rationale. If Holdsworth’s works closely echo Lyotard’s imperative for artists to “let us be witnesses to the unpresentable” – then we might return to his most famous sentence with bitter irony: “Let us wage a war on totality” (Lyotard 1984:82). This might just be what we as a species have achieved under globalization, in the thirty years since he defined the ‘postmodern’ era.
Impossible documents for the post-global age
Holdsworth’s work is strongly aligned to the tradition of Anglo-American conceptual art that uses photography and imaging as its tools of investigation. As the art historian John Roberts has written, the most apt and condensed definition of works of photographic conceptual art is as an attempt to create an ‘impossible document’ (Roberts 1997). Continuous Topography might be seen as part of this lineage: as a document that asks us to imagine the impossible, and views art as a form of philosophical speculation. The series presents us with images for the Anthropocene; images which provide an alternative ‘interface’ upon the present and which open onto the deep past - and images for what the cultural critic John Armitage has recently called the “post-global condition”. (Armitage 2015 n.p.)